Nazi Germany used it to justify its authoritarian rule. Proponents of Southern slavery used it to justify the buying and selling of Africans. British loyalists used it in support of quashing colonial rebellion in the 1770s.
And former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions used it in an effort to convince Christians his policy of separating migrant families is wholesome, godly and biblical.
Romans 13 is one of the most egregious cases of proof texting – where a piece of Scripture is isolated from context and twisted to support one’s own agenda – throughout history.
It has been applied to numerous situations over the years when supposed Christians needed to justify adherence to otherwise immoral actions by the state, and Sessions has joined the club.
“I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes,” the nation’s top law enforcement official said, The Washington Post reported. “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves. Consistent, fair application of the law is in itself a good and moral thing, and that protects the weak and protects the lawful.”
The passage Sessions employed says, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”
Taken alone, it appears the Apostle Paul is exhorting believers to obey government leadership without question, because all authority is God-given.
But this passage is not so cut and dry, as argument over its proper interpretation and application through the years reveals.
In 1744, clergyman Elisha Williams remarked that the text was “often wrecked and tortured by such wits as were disposed to serve the designs of arbitrary power.” Sessions’s comments yesterday kicked up a similarly intense response.
Some experts argue the biblical interpretation invoked by Sessions yesterday stems from a misreading. The same chapter contains lines that often are cited as the basis for Christian warmth: “Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” Yet others say the key to Romans 13 is the historical circumstances surrounding the letter the apostle Paul wrote to Christians in Rome in the early days of the church.
Theology scholar Mike Frost wrote in 2016 that Romans 13 should not be used to quell dissent because it comes from a period when Christians faced persecution from the Roman Emperor Nero.
“This is the guy who was said to have had Christians dipped in oil and set on fire to light his garden at night,” Frost wrote. “It makes perfect sense that Paul would commend the fledgling church to keep its head down, to avoid rocking the boat, to submit quietly to the prevailing political winds. They had no choice. They lived under the authority of a dictator.”
Sessions’ use of the passage to support his own agenda – one that even some in the Trump-supporting Evangelical community have condemned – was met with derision on social media:
“I guess Sessions forgot about the Gospels part of the Bible. Matthew 25:35 says ‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,’ ” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) said on Twitter. “Nothing in the Bible says to separate kids from parents. It teaches the opposite.”
“Where in your Bible does it say harm the #immigrant?” a prominent rabbi, Michael Adam Latz, asked on Twitter. “I’ve read the Bible-in Hebrew-and it commands us to LOVE the immigrant. You guys are epic moral frauds.”
“Hey, don’t bring God into this. I don’t think God picked you, because I don’t worship Vladimir Putin,” Stephen Colbert said Thursday night on “The Late Show.”
“Jesus said, ‘Suffer the children to come unto me.’ But I’m pretty sure all Sessions saw was the words ‘children’ and ‘suffer’ and said, ‘I’m on it.’ ”